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Eerie Freeze-Dried Mummies of Inuit Family on Display in Greenland

Steve Palace
Greenlandic child, preserved through natural mummification around 1475 AD. Qilakitsoq. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)
Greenlandic child, preserved through natural mummification around 1475 AD. Qilakitsoq. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

The Greenland National Museum has some truly fascinating exhibits and mummies which are around half a century old.

Part of a group of 8 discovered back in 1972, these mummies from Greenland were well-preserved by the icy conditions out at Qilakitsoq. That’s an abandoned Inuit settlement in the Uummannaq region, central-west Greenland. Two local brothers found the freeze-dried remains in 2 grave chambers a couple feet apart. Reportedly the pair were out looking for grouse and got much more than they bargained for when entering a cave!

After analysis via x-ray, it’s believed the mummies date back to approx 1475 AD. Together they form a family of 6 women and 2 children. The fur-clad bodies were placed on top of each other and separated by layers of animal skin.

Qilakitsoq mummy

Detail of the forehead of a tattooed female mummy from Greenland, Created by soot stained or dyed thread drawn under the skin by a needle, these designs apparently signified a womans country of origin and marital status, while serving as marks of feminine beauty. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

Their extraordinary condition makes them the most intact mummies in North America and a gold mine for experts. Skin, hair, fingernails and teeth have all survived the ravages of time. The Visit Greenland website describes them as “probably one of Greenland’s most famous treasures”.

Greenland mummy

Hands detail of a Qilakitsoq mummy from Greenland. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

One detail that’s particularly noticeable about the mummies is their facial tattoos. According to the Museum’s Deputy Director Bo Albrechtsen they were made somewhat painfully with a soot-coated thread, which was sewn under the skin with a needle. The soot was deposited under the top layer, where it is visible even today.

Another attention-grabbing detail concerns one of the children, an infant. Though the story is far from a happy one. The Sun writes, “Inuit tradition at the time dictated that if a mother passed away, her children be buried with her. The practice was carried out even if the children were alive to ensure they passed to the afterlife as a family.”

Greenland mummy

Greenlandic woman, preserved through natural mummification, (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

The harrowing prospect is tempered slightly by Albrechtsen. He points out that while this is a tradition of Thule culture (Thule being the Inuit’s prehistoric ancestors), it might not be the case that the baby – thought to be a boy – perished by those means.

Referring to the “rumors” on the Visit Greenland YouTube channel, Albrechtsen commented, “the practical reason… would be that no-one in the family or in the household would be able to take care of this little boy. So it is a possibility but we can’t really say if that happened in this case”.

Greenland mummy child

Greenlandic child, preserved through natural mummification, One of a group of 6 women and 2 children all buried together. Qilakitsoq. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

He added, “to understand death in the Thule culture we also have to look at the mythology of Inuit people.” This involved a journey to the next world where the deceased would crawl beneath a carpet. The trip apparently takes an entire year!

During this time moisture drains from the body, so mourners are restricted from crying as it might interfere with that sacred process. As for the causes of death that sent the family to the afterlife, these are as yet unknown.

Writing about the museum’s opinion, Forbes says “it is likely everyone died at the same time, shorty after arriving at the winter settlement in the fall.” Mention is made of extra clothing placed with the mummies which they could wear on their spiritual departure. All in all, 78 skin-based items of clothing were found.

Related Article: The Spooky Peruvian Mummies with Hair

The absence of males is intriguing, as the culture relied on both sexes working together in their respective ways. According to Albrechtsen, “Women and men depended certainly on each other and were each experts in their own field.” Those fields were skin preparation and sewing for the women, and ice fishing for the men.

Interested parties who want to see the Qilakitsoq mummies in Greenland for themselves can visit the museum, which is in Greenland’s capital of Nuuk. Coming face to face with this unsettling yet evocative exhibit gives people an unparalleled window into the island’s history.